Monday, March 21, 2011

Damnosa Hereditas?

Here's a piece of provocative testimony, made all the more cogent in that it seems to come from something of a hostile witness.  Edwin Hatch, after capably advancing the thesis that Philosophy was the schoolmaster preparing the Greek world for Christianity in much the same way that Torah did for the Jews, prophesied thus in 1888:

Edwin Hatch possessed a hair raising intellect
  The belief that metaphysical theology is more than this (dogma in the literal and original sense, ie., a personal conviction), is the chief bequest of Greece to religious thought, and it has been a damnosa hereditas. It has given to later Christianity that part of it which is doomed to perish, and which yet, while it lives, holds the key of the prison-house of many souls.
- Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, p138, Harper, 1957



  1. Wow - that wild hair and those crazy eyes!

    I'm incredibly out of my depth with regards to metaphysical theology so I'll sit back and watch you guys go at this one!

  2. No, I don't think you're actually out of your depth at all Dave, you just need an interpreter; jargon is the bouncer outside the academic clubhouse where they drink the same beer and tell the same jokes as everyone else.

    All he's really saying (I think) is that if the Church hadn't adopted the methods and motives of the Greek philosophic schools (particularly the belief that it's possible to arrive at objective spiritual [meta-physical] truth via procedures of formal logic) then we wouldn't have ended up with elaborate systematic theologies, schismatic Christianity, or the idea that adherence to a formal system of doctrine holds more weight with God than rustic notions like faith, hope, love etc.

    I personally tied this line of thought into ecumenical impetus; how is it with Christ in common we continue to argue and divide over such petty sh*t? The wild-haired crazy-eyed dude might just be on to something (speaking of dialectical delights aye Paul?).

    What d'you reckon Dave?

  3. Too true Peter. Jargonic shit makes the academic wheels go round. (See – I just created my own jargon word. I must be an academic for the impulse to generate self important linguistic barriers in order to create an inner bubble of elite knowledge seems irresistible! Its not that hard to do (hey management speak is worse, but does exactly the same thing) question is, why do we do it?

    Essentially I had exactly the same reaction as you David. I just managed to cover it over with counter-jargon! I tried posting this earlier but keep getting bounced out the blogosphere for some computer magic reason (see, the game of exclusion is not just done by academics), but I have persisted, and here is my post:

    Wow Peter – Hatch’s comment definitely matches his hair (startling, frightening, possibly true, possibly impossible). It’s a bit hard to work out what Hatch really means by this comment from this snap shot, but I think I might be agreeing with him. It fascinates me to trace the movement in meaning in the word ‘doxa’ in high classical philosophy (‘doxa’, doctrine, is mere opinion as opposed to true knowledge) and the word ‘doxa’ in the New Testament. In the New Testament (see John 1) doxa means the appearance of God veiled in flesh and is associated with the manifest (apparent) glory of God in the Old Testament, and hence doxa becomes tied deeply to worship (hence doxology, doxological) and to the necessity of belief in order to know truly (doctrine). So the NT quite shamelessly uses derided high classical philosophy terms and uses them to its own ends. Paul also has much to say about the wisdom of God being undiscernible to the wisdom of his age (middle Platonism no less). Pascal is right in noting that the God of the Philosophers is not the God of the Bible (no self respecting Philosophical God would be interested in the particularity and contingency of human history, let alone the history of the funny and obscure Jews, let alone actually enter history in human flesh as a baby). But yes, the high Greek notion of theology easily crosses into Christianity, and then perhaps, our faith becomes a respectable intellectually credible religion and God becomes a credal idol constructed by our own intellects.

  4. Ah, there you are Paul!

    I was beginning to worry about you, but then I found your comment in the 'spam' box. That's the second time I've come across that recently... perhaps the googlebots took exception to 'jargonic' and decided you were in fact a Nigerian only posing as Dr Tyson?

    Hatch's work is apparently considered something of a classic text on the subject. The reference under the quote is actually a link that will take you Princeton's archives where you can view or download the entire work to your hearts content (Ha! Got you for a change!).

    In context, it's a pretty cogent argument especially as he's not anti-Hellenistic at all as far as I can tell. Some aspects he seems to welcome 'into the household of faith' as it were but he suggests that the philosophers have simply usurped their proper place.

    I wonder if this line of thought doesn't lead straight into neo-orthodoxy; the timing would be about right wouldn't it?

  5. Ha! I seem to be back again Peter. Though, like you say, maybe google was right to be suspicious of me, and maybe, actually, I am a Nigerian KJV black marketeer (much more exciting than a ho hum sessional academic!). On this topic though, yes, you have out-referred me. I will need to put Professor Heir Hair’s work down on my very long list of things I want to read before I turn 506. But (on things I have read) I do very much like Ellul's sense that Greek philosophy has terribly high jacked our faith. Its in his must read "Subversion of Christianity". I am a serious philosophical greco-phile, and (worse and worse) of a Platonist bent, but I think Ellul's case hard to fault. Barth's exodus from liberal Protestantism to 'Neo-orthodoxy' has its roots in him being extraordinarily brilliant and finding liberalism just too sloppy and pointless, and merely fashionable. But certainly 19th century Greek scholarship was pretty out there (Nietzsche was amazing on that front) so it probably all mixes in.

  6. ##$$$$%%%%%%!!!!! I just lost a comment i spent a good 45mins on! And it's now 11pm!

    the gist was:
    - thanks for indulging my non-academic self - I'm learning a lot and appreciate it
    - seems to me that the more we understand the jewishness of Christ, the more it pokes holes through the greco-roman understanding of faith that we have
    - i think i get what you guys are saying and whole heartedly agree

    Damn - it was a good comment too - I had heaps of questions for you guys. Taking a whole lot of restraint not type a big four letter word in capitals (starts with f) and hitting Post Comment! ;)

  7. okay - remembered one of the questions:
    - Do you think Ellul rejects the grecian idea of thinking for the sake of thinking, understanding the toxic by-products that can have?

  8. Oh bummer Dave; so sorry that we've missed out on one of your beautifully crafted comments!

    I know exactly how you feel because I've lost a few real gems into the ether on Moodle, the site where I post for my courses. Imagine if you will a graded assignment doing a vanishing act moments before the deadline... at such times nothing other than a vile expletive, oath or imprecation (sometimes all three) seems to fit.

    One thing I've learned to do is either draft it in Open Office or Googledocs, or as is often easier, to simply 'save' my progress using the pc's clipboard function: 'ctrl+a' (to select), 'ctrl+c' (to copy), 'ctrl+v' (to paste back in if it all goes haywire). Your work will sit happily in the clipboard until you copy something else or turn the pooter off.

    But as to Ellul, he's certainly not anti-investigation; he was a highly regarded philosopher and sociologist himself. How 'bout this;

    "... the Christian intellectual ... must think out, very clearly, his situation as a Christian in the world, and he must think out his faith in relation to the world. Thus he has a very clear function to fulfill, and no one can take his place. Further, in this decadent civilization in which we are now living, the Christian intellectual has a very special mission to the world...."

    - Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, Helmers & Howard, 1989, p79,80

    So he's not against speculation at all, neither is he necessarily even against philosophical technique per se, merely against the primacy of technique over and against all other things.

    This seems to follow on from what Hatch was saying; the inclusion of Hellenistic philosophy into the early Church wasn't bad in and of itself, in fact it was probably inevitable and quite possibly intentional on the Holy Spirit's part. What was bad, and very bad, was acquiescing to the supremacy of philosophy; believing that the formal rules of logic and dialectic could arrive at a synthetic and objective 'criterion' of truth.

    Now I'm with Paul here, I'm actually a Grecophile too, but this idea is pretty hostile to the Hebraic tendency to anchor all discussion in the concrete and thereby simply accept paradox and dialectical tension as being a necessary part of life. That's why the Jews took so very long to stop thinking of the early Christians as simply another (perhaps errant) expression of Judaism.

    It's true that the early Church turned these tools on the 'heretics', so perhaps they served a very vital function (it certainly seemed to at the time), but we've continued turning them on each other in the name of defending 'orthodoxy' ever since. Which may be in large part why we've ended up with so schismatic a Christianity... Perhaps a more Hebraic tendency of thought could allow for more unity in diversity?

    Think for instance of how many 'heretics' and dissenters were murdered in the Roman Catholic West compared with in the Orthodox East. Doesn't the East seem far more tolerant and inclusive?


  9. yep - i'll be drafting all comments outside blogger from now on ! I generally ctrl C the entire thing before hitting post just in case it disappears but i forgot to do that!

    I'm not sure about the East being far more tolerant and inclusive… that may be true, but they're still human. I think the big problem with infusion of grecian thinking with christianity is that it has become the primary way that people perceive their faith (consciously or unconsciously), rather than being willing to come at faith from different angles, and so has created a view of the world/faith that must be defended from those that are diluting it or getting it wrong. That can be done though from whatever side of the fence you're on (western, eastern, northern - whatever).

    i think the potency of the gospel is lost when understanding it is frozen in a certain way of viewing the world. One of the things that makes the Gospel unique is that it needs to be/can be indigenised wherever it is planted, and can flourish without any particular intellectual framework. I think this goes to what you guys are saying - perhaps the grecian way of understanding christ, while definitely helpful, has had it's time in the sun, and we (westerners) need to look at faith from other perspective - and that threatens a mindset that is so certain that "we" have it right.

    but - you may be right - perhaps eastern traditions have a much more humble view of things and are able to more easily hold handle/live with tension, rather than eliminate it to create "right believe".
    We could start talking about right actions vs right believe here too - where do you think that fits in grecian thinking?

  10. Expletive sympathies David – I got caught out with a well thought out comment vanishing on this post too (seems to be trendy at the moment!). I write in Word and cut and past my comment in before pressing ‘flush’, so that I’ve still got it if it disappears.

    Yes, I love the Orthodox too, but yes again, they are sticklers for insiders (us) and outsiders (them, Western heretics mostly).

    Ellul – lover of thinking and Grecophile in his own way as he was – has issues with the Greeks for 1. Barthian reasons, for 2. Anabaptist reasons and for 3. Hebraic reasons.

    1. Ellul opposes “Christianism” which is the ideology and religion that has grown up like dense choking thorns around the seed of the Word. As Barth sees it Christ dispenses with religion and ideology. By reducing the Word of God to a system of propositional beliefs, to a religiously defined set of moral and ritual rules and regulations, to doctrinally formulated boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and ‘the real us’, and ‘the false us’ (thanks Constantine, was your primary purpose in governing the Nicean assembly to forge a powerful tool of imperial unity via the church?) we have turned the gift of God into an “oh so human” (to quote Nietzsche) religion like every other religion.
    2. The Way of Jesus is not a system of beliefs (this is not to denigrate belief and the importance of believing rightly) but a way of life. That way is characterised by the completely ‘unrealistic’ and horrendously ‘unnatural’ refusal of dominating power. How often have we seen doctrinal correctness – as governed by the logic of binary valencies (Aristotle’s law of non contradiction) – as a tool of dominating power within churches and between churches? And what good is knowing the right doctrine in actually living in the Way of Christ? Woopy diddly to correct doctrine and no Christ-like naturally impossible way of life. But our church cultures are about a double impossiblity. We equate ‘correct’ doctrine with an entirely respectable and normal way of life. Whatever that is, it is not the Way of Christ.
    3. The Hebrews embraced paradox. All the central beliefs of our faith are paradoxical. God is present and absent. God is faithful and yet we are abandoned. God is love and yet he hates. Into the Christain realm: God is three and one. Christ is God and man. The Kingdom is here and yet to come. God is merciful and just. I could keep going. Paradox is an essential feature of the people of promise. Paradox is anathema to Greek reason (OK, lets leave Heraclitus out of this for the moment; Plato too is remarkably ambivalent about propositional logic in relation to the highest truths). Also, the heart, not the mind as such, is the centre of Hebraic concern. ‘Objective’ rationality (not that such a thing actually exists), the cool light of reason, is not what drives Hebrew understandings of truth. Rather it is truth in our inward parts, it is a heart pleasing to the Lord, it is the heart right with our neighbour and the alien in our midst that the Hebraic response to the faithfulness of God requires. Right desire, fidelity even (particularly) in times of great mental confusion, great disaster, great waiting waiting waiting on the never seen fulfilment of the promise of God… that is not a Greek way.

  11. Just a quick note to say welcome back Paul! What would we do without our resident scholar?

    Anyway, sublime response; obviously I've bitten off more than I can chew at the moment so rather than talking with my mouth open I'll be back in a couple of days once I've submitted assignments...


  12. This is not some funny jokes to be act as Edwin Hatch, He was a great man. The belief that metaphysical theology is more than anything else.

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